My day started with a long local bus from my hostel in Kota Bharu, Malaysia to the Thai border. Immigration was slow and empty, and no one really paid much attention to anything I did. I filled out an arrival card, presented my passport, and that was it. Nobody spoke to me and my bags were never checked. When I walked through to the Thailand side, I was greeted by some goats milling around in the departure lane.
The goats were in charge of immigration, while the sheep had the highways under control.
Once in Thailand I took a motorbike taxi to the train station and booked the next train to Bangkok, which would turn out to be a 24hr journey. All the sleeping berths were taken - the best seat available was a 2nd class seat in a car without AC. I decided to go for it as I just wanted to get to Bangkok, and at this point in my trip comfort is definitely a dispensable option.
I had read that this region of Thailand was particularly prone to violence and terrorism, and that most Western governments advised their citizens against travel there if possible. Apparently even most travel insurance is void while traveling here (Sungai Kolok). Bombings are common, this incident having occurred three days before I was there. I had heard of trains being subject to attack here, but not recently. Technically I could have avoided starting my train journey there, but I try not to let fear make my decisions for me and logistically it made the most sense based on where my last location in Malaysia was.
When I got to the station the increase in risk was made dramatically clear by all the armed guards and military personnel patrolling the area, their assault rifles and handguns casually hanging from their shoulders or belts.
My train wasn’t for a few hours and for a while the many guards outnumbered the travelers. While I was waiting a local guy sat down next to me and we started chatting. He was all smiles and eager to practice his English and kept referring to himself as “that crazy guy!” in an endearing and non-creepy way. He was my age – 26.
While we were talking many of the station guards gathered around a television broadcasting the news, and my new friend said there had just been a bomb nearby, which was what the newscaster was reporting on. He explained that he “hated” his village because of all the violence, “I wake up to gunshots everyday” he said sadly, then broke out in his familiar grin - “it’s crazy!!” He was going to Malaysia later that day to its capital Kuala Lumpur, to seek out a life with significantly less violence. He was planning to work as a cook, but admitted that he sometimes makes the food too spicy because that’s how he liked it. I told him that my own preference for spiciness would probably appreciate it, and he beamed. Before he left he got my Facebook information, and I honestly hope he looks me up.
The train was late of course, and once I boarded I took stock of my situation. My seat was next to the window and comfortable enough; it would do. Since there was no air conditioning and this is always-hot Thailand all the windows would be open by default, a few fans on the ceiling providing the rest of the temperature control. The open windows were an interesting experience; you weren’t subject to the dirtiness of a window pane and could more fully appreciate the areas you were going through. The smell of each town and field we passed was rich in flavor, not always pleasant per se but definitely providing additional context for the sights. As we began to rumble slowly along, enterprising locals walked through the aisles selling various foodstuffs – green beans, fruit, snacks, Thai iced tea, fried chicken, noodles, booze. For every vendor walking the aisles (and there were many), it seemed like two soldiers would follow in their wake. This first part of the journey would be the most dangerous, and most of the guards would disembark once we got to Hat Yai about 5 hours away.
Sometimes we’d pass other trains, they looked equally exciting.
I wasn’t ever truly fearful of the situation, but entertaining the thought of what could happen if there was an incident did cause my imagination to get carried away at times. But in this case (spoiler alert) there was no terrorist attack to disrupt what would soon become a painfully mundane journey. I had some romantic notion of train travel based on things I’d read and heard from people, but after a while it was clear that Southeast Asia public trains were not what those enthusiasts had fallen in love with. This train was slow and hot and loud. The open window soon became a nuisance as it allowed all sorts of debris and ash to fly into the carriage and coat me in a layer of polluted grease. Bugs and rain also found their home around me and it wasn’t long before I understood that I was in for a rather uncomfortable 24 hours. The fluorescent lights stayed on all night, creating a grim scene around me as people passed out in awkward positions after covering their entire heads like someone about to be hanged.
Hey I would normally love a rice cake at 2am, if only I hadn’t bought some from the last 10 guys who passed by, sorry…
With nothing better to do, I walked around the entire train, where a moderate level of chaos – high enough to be disconcerting but low enough to still be boring - seemed to be the norm. In the 2nd class sleeper carriages whole families had grouped together in the aisles and seats, passing around food eaten hurriedly out of take-away containers, where kids crawled around on the floor and babies cried. First class had their own rooms (lucky bastards) so I was unable to see what they were up to, but in the interest of entertaining myself I imagined they were probably performing those acts of deviance and excess which the rich are known to enjoy (and they probably were too, those 1%-ers).
Third class was the wild west. The main thing that differentiated it from my own 2nd class carriage were its seats which, though slightly padded, were devoid of any further ergonomic enhancements. The seat backs were placed at an unforgiving 90-degree angle and the bench was flat and hard. This was apparently enough of a distinction to make it cheap enough that most people selected this option. Though there were technically seat numbers, they had all been disregarded. People lay passed out all over the place, teenagers congregated to smoke and play cards, there was a section reserved for “Monks and the Disabled” which appeared to be occupied by one monk and plenty of able-bodied people. In many corners of the train lay the vendors’ baskets of food and equipment, sometimes with them sleeping on top of it. Most people (except for the chainsmoking teens) looked like they’d rather be anywhere else. The aisles were blocked by a variety of obstacles, and trying to walk down them while the train rattled and swayed beneath me was an exercise in catching myself gracefully as I fell onto (hopefully) unoccupied seat backs. The squat bathrooms were covered in urine in each carriage (though to give credit where it’s due they did all have toilet paper) and there was no restaurant car.
lies. source: travelfish.org
One tour of the train was enough to convince me that there wasn’t really anything better than my own seat available, so I returned and resigned myself to 16 more hours of getting wind-whipped by progressively dirtier breezes. Trying to actually sleep at night was almost comically impossible – you could overcome the obscenely bright lights by covering your face but the awkwardness of the seat and constant bone-rattling vibrations of the train were impossible to ignore. I had a book but it turned out to be boring, and randomly 30 pages were missing in the middle. I wrote the first part of this post and that was exciting. I used up all the battery on my fully-charged ipod. I bought mangoes and dates and noodles and apples from the people selling them in the aisle and outside my window at stops, in a half-hearted effort to make things more interesting.
I bought some apples from this lady through the window, it was the most fun I had all day.
But even with those exciting developments, the train ride was still as tedious as anything I’ve ever done. It’s really rare for me to get legitimately bored but apparently sitting for 24 hours in one seat watching the world slowly pass me by is one way to do it. When I got to Bangkok I immediately hired a tuk tuk to Khao San Road, the capital of Southeast Asian backpacking, a place where you can get anything money can buy, and every night people do. It’s the definition of garish and touristy but I wanted to be in a place that didn’t lack for stimuli. I booked a room right in the middle of everything, purchased a large bottle of Chang, took a loooong shower and headed out into the mayhem. I had just the kind of night I was looking for, tacky and sleazy and boozy, during which I befriended a travel writer for VICE which, given the circumstances, seemed appropriate. I helped her pick out some local souvenirs for her housemates back home:
Conclusion: unless you’re some kind of millionaire who can afford the first class train berth (~$50), you’re probably better off taking a bus for long land travel in Thailand. (Malaysia’s trains aren’t so great either).